Childhood Car Tunes – Christmas Cassettes

Of all the things that change in life, I can always look at music as one thing I can keep consistent. As much as I try during the holidays, we can’t always keep annual traditions consistent, instead putting a new twist on how we celebrate as a family. My father passed away in July, and I lost some other relatives this year as well, so this Christmas will be harder on the entire family. With that, some things unfortunately will have to change. Finding a Christmas tree will be different (though with hives breakouts, my dad could not carry the tree), watching A Christmas Story without his “Look! A TTC Bus. It’s definitely filmed in Toronto!” insights and amused agreement with the father’s old-school methods will take adjusting to, and most importantly, Christmas morning will be short one great hero of mine, sitting comfortably in his armchair with his loving face showing appreciation for whatever gifts come his way.

I discussed some other recordings worth putting in your December playlist last year, but not all of them were ones that had their place in my childhood. You may not have the same attachment to this music, or have a taste for any Christmas-themed music whatsoever, but these cassette tapes (among others) accompanied us on many road trips to different holiday celebrations with family members, drives around the neighbourhood to view festive light displays, and used as a means to push some of the not-so-enjoyed songs pumped through the mall’s PA system out of our heads. I can’t help but smile or shed a tear thinking about some of the memories that I associate with this collection of music I will share with you.

This list is for those that get a kick out of searching for holiday songs, be it for nostalgia of years gone by or for new discoveries of ones that you weren’t aware existed, or simply for those that enjoy the holidays in general.

 

A Noteworthy Christmas

 

My elementary school once sold a CD that featured our school choir singing Christmas carols, but our family seldom seek that one out and instead get our Canadian holiday content from choirs that span coast-to-coast (from Vancouver to Cape Breton). With A Noteworthy Christmas, we don’t only get the fulfilled promise of “Great Canadian Choirs”, but these also run the gamut of vocal stylings, with choirs of children and adults in the mix to cover several octaves. We’d love to crack the whip air-drum style along to the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir’s rendition of “Jingle Bells”, and are all pulled in by the likes of the angelic “Noel, C’est L’amour” by the University of Manitoba Singers, one of the many less-obvious song choices on the album. If this wasn’t such an obscure release outside of the country, I would gladly provide links to these samples. While I’d recommend you find a copy of this for yourself, there are amazing vocal groups worldwide that have done as fine a job doing marvelous work with Christmas arrangements.

The cover is also (… wait for it…) noteworthy for it’s depiction of carolers that are far too overjoyed to be united in song to care about the cold conditions they find themselves in. The visible clouds of breath are a nice touch, though it sort of looks like they are standing out in the middle of nowhere (possibly due to package dimensional restrictions), but that’s hardly worth complaining about. Artist Sue Rathbun handled the illustration on A Noteworthy Christmas, and her paintings have also helped set the scene for other holiday and classical music recordings.

The album was distributed through bookstore chains (Coles, Chapters, and Smith Books) across Canada. Proceeds from this recording went towards Frontier College, a literacy organization formed in 1899 that continues to this day. In the spirit of the album’s intentions, I feel it’s only right to direct you to their website in the event you wish to donate or learn more about what they do.

 

I Love Christmas

 

This may seem like such a random compiling of artists, but I can’t hear any one of the tracks outside of their sequence on I Love Christmas without thinking of the tracks that precede and follow it. The album (in spite of the short running time) probably logged the most minutes in our tape deck, and could still be wedged inside of it for all we know. We still have the case, but the tape mysteriously vanished. As a result, there were a few years where we never got to play this album. Thankfully, my younger sister Heather gave us one heck of a Christmas gift a few years ago when she tracked down all these songs and put them onto a CD. These aren’t all the easiest songs to come across, so it took quite a bit of digging on her behalf. By now, a number of these songs must have sprouted up on Youtube, so have a look.

The one song included here that is the uncontested most-popular version is “All I Want For Christmas” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. I never thought the lead singer was a kid, but I definitely didn’t think it was a man. Vocalist George Rock surely had many others fooled, and the innovative use of sampling (I spot audio from the cartoon “A Waif’s Welcome”) make this track worthy of one of those “songs you must hear before you die” type of lists. I also recall strongly connecting “The Little Drummer Boy” to the Rankin/Bass animation, but my ears at the time couldn’t discern between this version by Hugo & Luigi’s Children’s Chorus and the Vienna Boys’ Choir’s interpretation from the opening credits, which is funny because they clearly sound nothing alike. Among the more relevant selections that have broader pop cultural relevance is a cover of “My Favorite Things” by The Brady Bunch star Florence Henderson and “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” sung by Eddie Fisher (Carrie Fisher’s father, to my fellow Star Wars fans).

I often wonder whatever happened to the cute, redheaded child on the front cover of this tape. I used to naively assume she was around my age, but the album was released in 1976. The koala bear would lead me to believe she’s from Australia, but it’s not as if the continent has a monopoly on the ownership of plush animals native to the region. If an adorable childhood photo of mine graced an album cover, I’d let everyone and their mother know about it, so don’t be too embarrassed or shy to reach out.

If by any chance you are out there and see this, I’m dying to know if the album title is accurate in your case or not, and (of course) if you still have the koala.

 

Joy To The World

Here’s one that’s a bit more difficult to discuss. This tape never came in proper packaging, so the limited information on the sticker is all I have to work with. It would be a bitch to sift through the thousands of releases titled Joy to the World that surely exist, but I’d love to find out more about this mysterious tape. Based on the sticker, it seem to be a joint release between Wonderland Records and Mr. Cassette. Not unexpectedly, Wonderland Records was a label releasing content aimed at children, so holiday music is a perfect fit under that umbrella. Looking at the logo, I thought that Mr. Cassette was some sort of toy, like an attempt to make a tape player fun for kids (see Playskool’s Rockin’ Robot / Mr. Mike for a real-life example). Instead, it looks like they may have been an audio duplication company of some kind, so this could be someone’s customized cassette tape. Maybe it’s something that a company released as a free holiday promotion for their customers. It’s interesting to hypothesize the tape’s origin, but the content was the more pressing mystery until recently.

Thanks to some Youtube sleuthing, I have identified most of the tunes included on this cassette. However, the opening “Joy to the World” is almost impossible to determine. I haven’t heard this tape in a few years, but I remember the song not fitting in with the others, and am almost certain it was performed by a choir. To make the rest of the task easier on me, most of the remaining songs have rather distinct names. The Sandpipers and the Mitch Miller Orchesta are the musicians on “Santa’s Other Reindeer”, and I’m betting the version of “Rudolph” on the tape was also theirs. If not, I still want to find an excuse to bring the bone-chilling, nightmare-fueling Rudolph from this Mitch Miller Christmas special to your attention. “When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter” sounds to be of roughly the same era, and was sung by Anne Lloyd. Her discography largely consists of appearances on children’s singles, many of which have her backed (as it seems to be in this case as well) by the Mitch Miller Orchestra.

My main memory is that my mom absolutely hated this tape. The aforementioned novelty songs worked best on this release, as it was definitely the 70’s ones that bothered my mom. The offending tracks were “Giddyap Giddyap Whoa Santa” and potentially-rhetorical “Did You Ever See A Snowflake?” by The Golden Orchestra and Singers. It was one of those guilty pleasures that my brother and older sister would enjoy when she wasn’t in the room. We likely only popped this one into the van tape deck once or twice. I’m surprised she didn’t throw it out the window and have dad back over it like it was Mr. and Mrs. Erotic American. To put simply, these two songs remind me of the type of tunes that came from quasi-religious, feel-good shows like Ballooner Landing or Size Small Island. In my book, that’s hardly a glowing appraisal. Still, us siblings mainly got a kick out of it at the time because of that super-dated sound. We jokingly referred to it as a hippy-dippy disco album, so we clearly weren’t sure what era each track this fell under.

If you’d like to hear my thoughts on Side Two, scroll back to the top of this section to read the summary again (both sides had the same songs on it).

 

Have Yourself A Looney Tunes Christmas

 

This tape is naturally the one with the broadest appeal. Virtually everyone living today knows of or has seen the Looney Tunes in some context. The album came into my family’s collection a bit later than the others, so I’m guessing it’s more of a classic Christmas listen to my younger sister than anyone else in the family. I was around 10 years old when we had it, so I was slowly beginning to branch out and figure out what music I was into and occasionally listened to other tapes on my own tape player while this played in the van’s tape deck. At this stage, Christmas music may have begun to get stale to me. Still, this was in our rotation, and I have great recollection of what these classic Warner Brothers characters did to these holiday staples.

A few of the song names are dead giveaways as to which character is the main performer, such as “I Tawt I Taw Ol’ Tanty Clause” (Tweety Bird) and “Christmas in Paree” (Pepé Le Pew), but I remember much of this being a hodge-podge of different voices butting in and out of the songs in the typical organized chaos expected out of the Looney Tunes. The moment that jumps out most to me is during “We Wish You A Merry Christmas (and a Looney New Year!)” where Daffy Duck asks who is the “figgy (pudding) flinger” in one of the many points of derailment across the album.

As an appreciator of animation and its history, I wish that this album listed the voice actors for the featured Looney Tunes. Mel Blanc had passed away five years prior to this release, and many of the Looney Tunes that he and others originally voiced have been handled by dozens of people over the years. Did they keep the actors consistent between audio-only recordings and the cartoons? They likely did their best, but I’ll need to keep a lookout for a detailed listing that some dedicated fans must have compiled somewhere.

 

Gene Autry – Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

 

This definitely has the look of a dollar-store album, and I’m sure that (or Canadian Tire’s cassette rack) was where this one was found. The content is certainly worth the pocket change that this collection would retail for. I think that this is likely to have been part of many households, albeit repackaged across a wide variety of compilations and record labels or distributors. Gene Autry has a warmth to him (not to mention his cowboy appeal) that makes the songs across these spools more digestible than others mentioned here. His smooth vocal is the type I tend to associate with the holiday season, much like I do with another iconic vocalist of the same era, Bing Crosby. For that reason, you could rank this as my most highly-recommended of the tapes, if only that it is the most obtainable.

I don’t know if there’s a dud in the bunch. The album is largely filled with the obvious choices, such as “Up On The Housetop”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and (obviously) “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. “Buon Natale” may be the most unexpected inclusion in the lot, and come to think of it, this is by far the version of the song that I am most acquainted with. Perhaps I can make it a side-mission of mine to find other interesting takes on the song before next Christmas arrives.

His nephew (or so we are lead to believe) interjecting in the middle of the album’s festivities is somewhat typical of a Christmas album to give opportunity to tell the story of the first Christmas. With my limited reference base from the time, I’d compare his questions to Beaver Cleaver or some other innocent but unintentionally smart-alecky child from 50’s and 60’s television programs. If the kid is an actor, he at least feels genuine. It works beautifully as a fantastic conclusion with it leading into “Silent Night”, something of a lullaby that works well as a Christmas bedtime story.

My family goes with The Night Before Christmas, but if the Autry way works for you, who would I be to stop you?

 

Disney’s Christmas Favorites

 

A few other Disney records and cassette tapes made up some of the earliest parts of our music collections, but to my family, Disney’s Christmas Favorites was the crème de la crème. I’ll be the first to admit that songs on here have more collective sap than a Christmas tree farm, but the total package continues to conjure up strong feelings in me and tie to memories that even pre-date kindergarten. That’s why I’ve saved it for last. As you can see, the cover does list the music performers that appear on various tracks, but not the specific songs that they perform. However, it’s not very difficult to differentiate between Larry Groce, the Disneyland Children’s Sing-Along Chorus, and the Mike Sammes Singers without detail-oriented labelling.

Larry Groce should be familiar to those that have Disney recordings from around the same time. He appears on another Christmas tape that we obtained years later, but my older sister and twin brother (Rachel and Alex) and I are also familiar with his lead vocal on “Cowboy Mickey” that was included on a tape that came with an activity book and crayons. He had a minor hit that pre-dated his Disney career in the novelty song “Junk Food Junkie”. Some songs on this you’ll hear him singing by himself (“O Christmas Tree”), and in others (“Deck The Halls”) he is backed by children.

Speaking of those children, the Disneyland Children’s Sing-along Chorus seems to be a rotating stable of young vocalists since the name carried on across a good decade’s worth of recording. That’s just my own assumption because kids don’t stay kids forever unless they used the magic of Disney to record in Neverland from Peter Pan, but there’s enough fantasy surrounding the Christmas holidays as it is. I wonder if this group had the ability to launch talent like the Mouseketeers did, where some of the singers would go one to have much larger careers in the music industry like Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. Stars or no stars, they can be heard here on Christmas Favorites in a few spots sans Groce, such as “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”.

Mike Sammes (and his Singers) had a rather fruitful recording career from the 50’s through to the 70’s. I’ve likely heard their work several times, but my most recent point of reference came a few years ago when watching a DVD of Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson’s short-lived series The Secret Service, where they performed the toe-tapping main theme. The ensemble has additional connections with Disney with their contributions to movie soundtrack records such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Aristocats. They make three appearances on this tape, with “Do You Hear What I Hear?” among them.

No, Goofy, Mickey, Pluto and the gang of cartoon characters don’t make appearances on this record, but I could always imagine these Disney creations ringing in the holidays. In fact, I liked to pretend that Larry Groce’s voice was Mickey Mouse leading a chorus of children, families, or the other Disney critters featured on the cover. If that’s too much of a stretch for your imagination, there are alternatives ready for purchase, but it certainly did the trick for me. Furthermore, picking a favourite track or two doesn’t seem right to me, and having enjoyed these songs on cassette tape didn’t afford me the luxury of easily skipping songs (thanks, in part, to sticky fast-forward buttons). I take it all as it comes in the order the format provides. However, if you want this in a more complete form, the vinyl edition surprisingly has an extra song in “White Christmas”. My mom has the record as well, but not a functioning turntable, so the tape has been what we stick with.

With that, I’ll add that there are a new batch of Christmas albums that have entered the family’s collective collection. We’ve got Jimmy Smith’s Christmas ‘64, Nat “King” Coles’ The Christmas Song, Ren and Stimpy’s Crock O’ Christmas and I’ve had a copy of Halford’s Winter Songs waiting five months to get its first play. Not a bad haul considering I didn’t plan on getting more holiday music this year. I don’t have big hopes that they will all be essential listens for myself or for you (particularly the last two), but it’s all in good fun and getting to sample what this time of year has to offer.

I’ve even begun to warm up to the idea of fruitcake, so who knows what I’ll have a taste for in the future.

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